Is eye contact overrated? I think so. And I’ll go further. If you, personally, overrate eye contact, I think you’ll be missing a trick when it comes to communication. You might even be an eye contact junkie!

Yes, all you “people people” – I’m talking to you!

You probably already know that there are huge differences between cultures when it comes to eye contact. In some cultures (such as mainstream American culture) eye contact is seen as a universally good thing, signifying respect, attention, recognition etc. But in other cultures the opposite applies – direct eye contact signifies disrespect.

It seems to be less well known that there are huge differences within cultures when it comes to eye contact, too. Some people hate it, or at least find it uncomfortable and/or distracting, depending on the situation.

And, some people constantly demand eye contact, even when that makes the other person uncomfortable or distracts them.

Are they addicted to eye contact? Eye contact junkies?

Or, do they just not know any other ways pay attention?

Let me share some ideas. I’m curious to know how they’ll land with you.

Eye Contact: Attracting Attention Or Paying Attention?

When I’m working with a group – even a big group such as when I’m giving a conference keynote – I like to run an activity where one person encourages another to keep talking for two minutes without using words.

My main purpose is to warm up people’s listening muscles and prepare them for another activity. But a side-effect is to reveal the eye-contact thing. Someone always says that they use eye contact to indicate that they are paying attention. There tend to be nods of agreement – but not from me.

What direct eye contact actually does is to attract attention. That’s not the same thing as paying attention.

Alternatives To Eye Contact

When you really pay attention to someone, they will know you’re doing it. You don’t need to huff and puff, make exaggerated uh-huh noises, or spend a lot of time nodding.

Instead, try using a soft gaze, seeing the whole person including their gestures, staying relatively still, and holding a relaxed curiosity about this unique human being. Consider using a Clean Language question or two, including their exact words – that’ll help keep your attention focussed.

Remember, the quality of your attention can determine the quality of another person’s thinking, and perhaps even their destiny. Consider it practice in becoming a better listener.

Downgrading Eye Contact

There’s a relationship between eye contact and working with remote teams. Put simply, when you’re remote from another person, eye contact can’t work in quite the same way.

Obviously on the phone, or when using text-based systems such as email, there’s no chance to make eye contact. And even when using online video, eye contact isn’t the same as in person, because the camera and the on-screen image of the other person are not in the same place.

So if you are an eye contact junkie, you’re going to be at a disadvantage online.

Is that a good enough reason to start to break the addiction?

 

 

  • This set of ideas is very much work in progress. Comments most welcome!

    9 replies to "Are You An Eye Contact Junkie?"

    • Ben

      People have moaned at me for not making enough eye contact but I always felt I would miss signs and not see the body langauge etc… likewise when making too much eye contact I cant check into my intuition or thoughts as well about what I am picking up…. so interesting to see someone think along the same lines…

      Ben

    • Colin Smith

      What an interesting insight Judy, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      I agree, as does Celeste Headley says in her TED talk – 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation, that you don’t need to do ‘things’ like nodding, eye contact, aha’s, etc., to show you are paying attention, if you are doing so, the speaker will know it and feel it.

      I also like the idea of the soft gaze and relaxed curiosity way of being with the speaker.

      My thoughts are that it is more about intention, an intention to be as fully present as possible with the other, and to remain curious about what they may say. After all this is much more about them than it is about us. The more we remain in this space, the more they feel this is a safe space, the more relaxed they will be become, and the deeper their thinking will become. Asking clean questions, as Judy says, in response to what they are saying, will enable them to feel heard, valued and that they and their contribution really matter.

      Finally, my sense is that is no right or wrong way, rather that the more we are present, our response will be aligned to where the speaker is at that moment. It becomes like a synchronised dance.

      Colin

    • Sally Kleyn

      Thanks Judy for initiating this discussion and to Ben and Colin for their builds. My simple summary: authenticity trumps technique.

    • Laurie Morgen

      Fantastic piece that I’ll certainly share widely. Eye contact is notoriously difficult for people like me, who are on the autism spectrum. It doesn’t mean we are not listening or paying attention if we avoid it. In fact, both of my sons, both with Asperger’s syndrome (autistic) were criticized at school for staring out of the window while the teacher was talking yet they could repeat back, parrot fashion, every word that had been spoken.
      I and many other autistic people, would welcome acceptance of less eye contact, which can, incidentally, cause stress, anxiety and physical pain.
      Thank you, Judy, for writing this. Let’s work at building a society where no eye contact is eye deal.

    • Great article Judy! Thanks for sharing. I think we put too much emphasis on eye contact and what we can achieve with it. I agree with Ben’s comment. If we’re hard-target focussing on the eyes then we miss some pretty important things.
      I remember when a friend first learned to drive she proudly stated “I never used to notice who was driving the vehicle coming towards me, I never paid attention, but now I notice every driver who is in oncoming traffic and I see their faces.” She thought this made her a better driver but to me I believe it made her a poorer driver. By trying to see everyone’s face what was she missing? Wildlife? A questionable driver in front or behind?
      I think this equates very well to our thoughts about eye contact, it makes us feel like we’re connecting but while we’re connecting we’re often missing the bigger picture.
      I like your soft focus approach. There’s so much more to see than the colour of the other person’s eyes! And, in a virtual setting even when we feel like we’re making eye contact we aren’t truly doing so – it’s misleading. And, as you know, there are much better ways to connect virtually.
      Thanks for the thought provoking insights!

    • Susann Cook

      Hi Judy:
      As a foreign student advisor, I learned a long time ago that eye-contact and its interpretation as being open, paying attention and connecting is a very American belief. In some countries such as Puerto Rico direct eye context is seen as intrusive and even aggressive. To show respect you cast your eyes down.
      And as you so aptly argue, paying attention can be shown in different ways as can connection with a client. Loved that you brought this up.

    • Araceli Higueras

      Hi Judy, in my NLP practitioner training with John Seymour, I was trained to sit ‘away’ from the coachee’s line of vision, sitting at an angle, not in front of them. (after asking, of course). If I remember correctly, the idea was to see them but not be seen if they didn’t want to, to give people thinking space and not to distract them. I like eye contact but rarely keep eye contact 100% of the time. I confess that I resent not having any eye contact at all. Perhaps balance is ‘the’ way? Krgds, Ara

    • Stephen Grey

      I believe that in India, Pakistan and across through South East Asia, good manners demand that children avert their gaze from those to whom they are required to show respect; adults in general but especially anyone in formal positions of authority. That could easily extend to medical practitioners and counsellors.

      I am not one for staring into the eyes of people with whom I am working but I try to shift my behaviour a little in that direction if I see the person to whom I am speaking is inclined to do so. It’s a bit like mirroring body language.

      It’s about the person with whom we are interacting, not about us.

    • Sioelan

      Very interesting comments and the answer to your question is definitely not for me. I find looking in the eyes of others often quite distractive. In Traditional Chinese medicine the eyes form a place in which one can see whether the othet has ” spirit” or is “spiritless”, this reflect their health status. The latter will be more difficult to change their health through treatment. I have also run a similar silence exercise with a small group some time ago and the answers were fascinating…… It was as if they got a better sense of the others state, possibly paying more exquisite attention to their non verbal cues.i wonder whether, connecting silently would be a much faster way to connect people more deeply……?

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